Friday 22 April 2016

Another year at the frontier

Last academic year, I was put in charge of a roomful of final year project students for 6 hours a week through the entire 30 weeks of the teaching year. Each student was working away on a short section of the frontiers of science, cutting at the weeds and shrubberies of ignorance to throw a little fresh-air and clarity on the world.  It was all the most fun you could have indoors under artificial light. At the end of our sojourn together, they clubbed together and bought me a mug, some tea-bags and a packet of biscuits - as a bit of an in-joke from the journey. But also an appreciation of the fact that I had given it socks for hours and hours week after week. I was touched to have made a difference but also embarrassed to accept something for doing what I had to do: partly because it was the job description but also because, like Martin Luther and W!ld,  I could do no other.

This year it was the same deal.  Instead of 16 students, about half running with one of 'my' projects; this year there were only 14 students but a higher proportion working directly under my supervision. But the intensity was similar and the projects were wide ranging, so I had plenty to get my teeth into. Scooting about on one of the few wheelie-chairs that worked in the broken down 'Business' computer room that we were assigned. One minute I'd be slowly talking through the basics of sequence analysis again; the next I'd be having a grown-up discussion about the evidence for genetic competence in gammaproteobacteria. Different students, same principles, same doggedness, same aha! moments,same absenteeism, same extended tea-breaks [not me, no time] and the same sense of contented exhaustion at the end of each day.

In the final class before wrap-and-submission, I was rushing around as fast as usual, occasionally pausing to oil the smokin' wheels of the office chair, when student #stat3buriedtargets asked for my attention, stood up and started a little speech of appreciation on behalf of the class.  She then presented me with a hamper of chocolates and cookies [possibly chocolate pizzazz] including a bottle of white wine.  I was, of course, touched and certainly surprised, but I told them that it was unprofessional to do that sort of thing because what I did was part of our contract with the frontiers of science.  When I got back to the office, I showed the box, with its cellophane and ribbons, to my roomie. Her response was  "If this tradition goes on and up, next year they'll be giving you a car".  I thought that was a bit of a jump, but with 3 or 4 years to go before retirement, I could see the then 4th years clubbing together to buy a shockin' pink zimmer-frame in 2020.

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